Are the Pittsburgh Steelers Primed for a Fall

Rob SmeltzerCorrespondent IMay 8, 2009

PITTSBURGH - MAY 01:  Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches practice alongside defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau during rookie training camp at the Pittsburgh Steelers Practice Facility on May 1, 2009 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

It's hard to argue with success.  Two Super Bowls in four years has done two things for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

First, it has made the fan base giddy and celebratory like it's the late '70s.

Second, it has made every fan hungry for more.

The overwhelming sentiment is that the organization is one of the best in sports and there's no need to question their methods because they get the job done.  However, in a sport where parity is the goal, is it reasonable for fans to expect more of the same?

The NFL is built to be full of teams going 8-8, with a few different teams jumping up to a higher level each year.  The structure of the salary cap and the importance of the draft have helped the NFL achieve what few other leagues have. 

Football is the most balanced of professional sports as success is set to be cyclical.  So the question is:  If the league is set to make you fail after success, how do you overcome the system?

Reaching the playoffs in twelve of the last seventeen seasons is a tremendous accomplishment for the franchise, subjecting their fans to very few down seasons.  The main reason for their success is touted to be their approach to personnel. 

The Steelers never make a big splash in free agency, signing very few stars from other teams.  Rather they tend to sign role players and backups.  The vast majority of their starters come from their drafts. 

Last season alone, only three starters (James Farrior, Justin Hartwig, and Ryan Clark) were not either a Steelers draft pick or undrafted free agent brought in as a rookie. 

That's a staggering figure when you think of how many seasons it takes to build a complete roster.  So one could assume that by examining the Steelers recent crops of new players, you can predict future success. 

It's no secret that one goal for the 2009 Steelers will be to keep the quarterback upright.  The team gave up 49 quarterback sacks in 2008, only better than the Lions, 49ers, and Bengals. Some of the blame goes to the quarterback, but some also goes to the offensive line. 

Ben Roethlisberger's tendency to hold the ball and try to make plays well after he should have released the ball creates situations that not all offensive lines have to deal with.  However, some of those situations are caused by the offensive line in the first place. 

So by looking at the past few years of draft picks, we need to see if any players are ready to contribute.  The past few drafts have netted Tony Hills, Cameron Stephenson, Bo Lacy, and Marvin Phillip. 

Hills will be entering his second year, but not many are speaking of high expectations yet.  Stephenson, Lacy, and Phillip are not even on the roster.  The other offensive line draft picks include Trai Essex, Willie Colon, Max Starks, and Chris Kemoeatu.

This is the foundation of the line that everyone likes to beat up and say is the weak spot on the team. 

So, will this core of players get better with time and improve with more chemistry playing together? Or will they continue to disappoint, with no quality reserves ready to step up?  Will this year's draft picks, Kraig Urbik or A.Q. Shipley, step up and make a contribution?

The other area of concern is the age along the defensive line.  All of the teams starters and primary backups along the defensive line are reaching the end of their careers and the team needs depth for future starters or injury replacements. 

Certainly, the first round selection this year of Evander "Ziggy" Hood can ease some fears.  It looks like he may learn the ropes at defensive end in the 3-4, as he played primarily defensive tackle in college. 

The Steelers have a horrible track record with selecting defensive linemen in the recent past.  Picks like Ryan McBean, Orien Harris, Shaun Nua, and Eric Taylor have failed to pan out and there hasn't been an influx of talent to make up for the misses. 

While many of these were late round picks, the team still needs to find quality players along both lines in order to keep its success rolling. It seems that the team as a whole may have peaked last season.

The growth of the offensive line will certainly be the deciding factor, but if any starters are struggling anywhere on the team, the cupboards may be bare of replacements. 

The Steelers have done a masterful job of working the system and building successful products on the field, but it would be easy to see tougher days ahead. The NFL makes sure that continued success is an aberration and not the norm.  Can the Steelers be the exception?


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